World renowned water expert Peter Gleick has a new book – released in May 2010 – outlining the scientific evidence that bottled water use in the U.S. has become unsustainable. The book is called Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water.
Peter Gleick: Twenty five years ago in the United States, each American probably drank a gallon of bottled water a year, on average. Today it’s up to 30.
Gleick told EarthSky that – every second in the U.S. – we consume about 1,000 bottles of water. He spoke of the tremendous amount of fuel burned in order to make and transport these bottles, most of which ultimately end up in a landfill.
Peter Gleick: We did an estimate at the Pacific Institute that if you calculate the energy requirement of making all of the bottles that are consumed the United States in a year, it’s on the order of 17 or 18 million barrels of oil equivalent.
He said there are lesser known environmental impacts of bottled water – such as groundwater depletion. He talked about visiting a bottled water facility in California.
Peter Gleick: It turns out that the source of that water is a desert spring up in a remote canyon in the deserts near Palm Springs. The more water you take out, the less water you have for flow in the springs, the less the rare desert ecosystems have to survive. And that sort of problem is being repeated around the country.
And around the world. He said the global consumption of bottled water is about 40 billion gallons a year. But that’s not his biggest concern.
Peter Gleick: Probably my biggest concern is that I believe very strongly that water is a human right. There are a billion people worldwide today that don’t have access to safe tap water. The solution is not bottled water. The solution is developing high quality public water systems that can provide inexpensive water for everyone.
He spoke of public versus private control of water systems.
Peter Gleick:And it does raise this question about public versus private control. I believe that water ought to be available to the public. We have an incredible tap water system that’s been built and operated and owned by the public. I think that’s a good model for the rest of the world, but we don’t see it yet.
His scientific opinion is that tap water in the United States is, generally, excellent. In fact, he added, about 45% of bottled water is filtered municipal water.
Peter Gleick: American tap water is carefully monitored. It’s carefully regulated. But I’d be the first to argue that it ought to be better. There are places in the United States where people don’t have safe drinking water, mostly in rural areas where wells aren’t monitored by municipal agencies or federal agencies.
He said our Safe Drinking Water Act is outdated, and that our water-treatment technology needs to be upgraded. But all of those things can be done at a far lower cost than providing bottled water, which often isn’t monitored as carefully as our tap water. The first step, he believes, is to maintain and expand a state-of-the-art tap water system.
Peter Gleick: It’s the cheapest, most equitable, most environmentally sound solution. I think if we did that – if we restored confidence in our tap water – bottled water sales would drop.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.